Joe Goldberg In You Isn’t Romantic, He’s A Murderer
*Warning: Contains Spoilers For The Netflix Show You*
The thing about monsters is their outward appearance will not always betray what they are capable of.
On the surface, You’s Joe Goldberg, portrayed with brilliant creepiness by Penn Badgley, is a leading man straight out of a rom-com.
He is handsome in the pale and whimsical way which has appealed to bookish girls since time immortal. In addition, he has a quirky job in a picturesque New York bookshop and a tendency to empathise with lonely children.
Joe’s obsession with his victim-turned-girlfriend Beck also bears some of the well-trodden tropes of the rom-com ‘will they-won’t they’, albeit gruesomely inverted.
We see the ‘meet cute’ over a shared love of literature and a dramatic knight in shining armour moment when Joe pulls Beck from the path of a train. The pair often share witty dialogue, and Joe is vocally supportive of his victim following her dreams of becoming a professional writer.
Joe’s twisted inner monologue reveals he views himself to be something of a romantic, selfless hero, risking everything to secure the love of his fittingly Arthurian named princess, Guinevere.
He often laments what he has to do in order to ‘protect’ Beck, and intersperses grisly murders with personalised Scrabble themed cakes and impromptu indoor camping.
Worryingly, some viewers have found themselves romanticising the character of Joe, expressing envy towards Beck for having a boyfriend who is so ‘protective’ over her. This is clearly not the message the show wished to convey at all, so what is going on?
I spoke with Rachel Horman, chair of charity Paladin and a solicitor who specialises in stalking, about the way society’s attitudes towards stalking are shaped by films and television programmes.
Horman told UNILAD:
I think generally speaking they [stalkers] are portrayed really badly and as a society we do massively confuse romance with stalking.
And I see that all the time with clients that will say, ‘you know, he’s really nice, this guy I’ve met. He won’t let me get the bus from work. He picks me up’. And while that might be nice, it might also be a sign of controlling, potentially.
So it’s very difficult to give a list of behaviours which are unacceptable because obviously it depends on the context of it, doesn’t it? But I do think we confuse it all the time and I think that justifies it in the mind of stalkers.
In court, if you read the mitigation, basically they will say ‘he’s a romantic fool, he’s just trying to win her back’. All of that kind of thing. When really, it’s quite terrifying, dangerous behaviour.
So I think the media has a responsibility as to how they report it and in the way that it is portrayed on film, I think it’s dangerous.
Because again victims as well, then start to think that’s normal, that they can’t report it, that they should be flattered.
I’ve actually heard the police say that to victims, ‘you should be flattered by the attention’. And again the police are just members of society. They will be affected by all the kind of media portrayals etc.
During one particularly tense moment, Joe spies on Beck and her friends while hiding beneath a bed and sighs that ‘I bet Harry never had to do this for Sally’.
In another similar scene, he wonders – with some amusement – how he gets into such situations, as if his crime spree had merely been a clumsy caper of bad luck.
Such moments are darkly comic, with the full extent of Joe’s disassociation from reality laid bare. The show, and the novel it is based upon, is clear about Joe’s complete obliviousness as to what a true, equal relationship entails.
However, the fluffy world of rom-coms is of course not the best template for depicting relationships, with many seemingly light-hearted movies containing examples of the romantic hero exhibiting stalker-ish behaviour while being viewed as sweet and ‘love sick’.
Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle flies across the country to spy on a man she heard on the radio. Ted Stroehmann in There’s Something About Mary hires a private investigator to look for a girl who had already expressed her disinterest in him back in high school.
Horman spoke with me about her own discomfort when watching certain questionable scenes in rom-coms, where inappropriate, and sometimes frightening, behaviour is rewarded with a kiss.
Horman told UNILAD:
There’s lots and lots, like Love Actually, all the rom-coms. I can’t watch them because I just think, ‘my god this guy’s a nightmare’. And I just spoil it for everybody!
And it’s only when you start talking about it and people go, ‘oh actually, yeah it is a bit weird, isn’t it?’
But if you don’t say it, it just goes into their psyche and people don’t realise it. And I do think it then leads to kind of justifying stalking and maybe not reporting it which is really, really dangerous.
So I would like to see filmmakers being more responsible really in what they’re doing.
Despite criticising the social media lens through which image conscious Beck frames her world, Joe views Beck in an idealised fashion; perceiving her as his perfect soulmate who just needs saving from her own poor decision making.
Worryingly, Beck has been criticised widely on social media, even being held directly responsible for Joe’s actions. Some have questioned why she hadn’t shut her curtains during scenes when Joe was spying on her from the street outside. Others pointed to her cheating, as if this made her somehow less of a victim.
According to Horman, this victim blaming mentality is far from unusual when it comes to seeking justice for real life stalking victims:
That the police will look to blame victims all the time. And if a victim so much as texts back once to a stalker to maybe say ‘look, will you stop contacting me?’
The police will say ‘well, you were texting him, you were having a conversation, therefore we can’t do anything’.
Like the satirical American Psycho before it, You has given us a disarmingly photogenic villain for our times. A killer who can prowl around fashionable homeware departments and day-lit parks and make surprisingly articulate observations.
Do not let the tousled hair and ‘redeemingly’ thoughtful gestures fool you. Joe Goldberg is not somebody you would want to be in an Everythingship with, and the reactions to this character are a sad reminder as to how such criminals are all too often treated in the real world.
In real life, dismissive attitudes towards stalking can have life and death consequences, with a worrying link between stalking and domestic homicide.
Horman told UNILAD:
Lots and lots of films will portray stalking as ‘Well he’s just trying to win her back etc’. But it’s dangerous in terms that it justifies it for the stalker but also for the victim it means that they are more likely to report it, I think, until it gets really serious.
But then, unfortunately, it can be too late because there’s a massive link between stalking and homicide, particularly domestic abuse stalking where it’s your ex partner.
In nearly every domestic violence homicide, there’s been stalking in the run up to it.
It’s not just something that’s a bit annoying or a bit inconvenient, it’s one of the most dangerous crimes that there is and we do get opportunities to stop it happening and stop it becoming a murder.
Like many others, I have been thoroughly gripped by the twists and turns of You, enjoying the added thrill of listening to Joe’s deranged thought processes as he commits his evil deeds.
Every scene in You shows an extravagantly literary version of New York where poetry is read in trendy bars and stylish publishing agents rock up to novel themed birthday parties.
From the plush interiors of Peach’s grandiose townhouse to the leafy campus where Beck studies creative writing, You provides a backdrop fit for a Nora Ephron movie.
But much like Annika’s Instagram feed, which depicts a covetable and even admirable existence, the sumptuous world of You is not an accurate reflection of the inner world of the disturbed and dangerous narrator.
You is currently available to stream on Netflix.
You can contact Paladin on 020 3866 4107.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. Do not suffer in silence.